EASTON, Maine — Clair Carter admitted some surprise when he was honored recently as Easton Junior/Senior High School’s fan of the year.
He shouldn’t have been.
The 91-year-old Carter arrived here in 1952 — working initially as a teacher and coach and later for 20 years as principal of the school — and has witnessed the ups and downs of Easton athletic teams for more than six decades.
“When my wife and I came here, we said we were coming up for two years and then going somewhere in the southern part of the state,” said Carter, an Oakfield native and World War II veteran. “We never left.
“And I love watching all the ball games because you get to know all the kids,” he added.
Following the Easton boys basketball team this winter has been appointment recreation for Carter and many of the town’s other 1,200 residents, with the Bears recently completing their first undefeated regular season in the program’s history.
The Quonset hut-shaped gymnasium that was new when Carter arrived and known throughout Aroostook County as “The Barn” routinely packs 400 or more fans around the court and on the stage at one end of the building to watch a team in search of its first regional championship since 1980 and first state title since 1965.
“Every year on the first day of practice, I talk about one goal and one goal only, and that is to compete for a championship,” said Dillon Kingsbury, the team’s 21-year-old, third-year head coach.
“A lot of times I get misquoted on this, and they say coach Kingsbury says his goal is to play for a state championship. Well that’s not necessarily the case, it’s to compete for a championship. Last year, you could make the argument that we competed for a championship. We didn’t play in a championship game, but we were right there.”
Easton reached the Eastern Maine Class D semifinals last winter as the No. 8 seed after stunning defending state champion and top-ranked Jonesport-Beals 55-53.
“When we won that game, we realized that anything is possible,” said 6-foot-4-inch senior center Hunter Turner, the Bears’ leading scorer and rebounder. “We also realize that No. 1 can fall just as easily as No. 16, but if you really put your heart and mind to it, anything’s possible.”
Easton (18-0) is ranked second this winter behind Washburn — a team the Bears defeated twice during the regular season — thanks to a mix of disciplined, opportunistic offense and stingy defense that has yielded just 36.7 points per game.
“We try to pride ourselves on defense, and we push it with patience on offense,” said Kingsbury. “People don’t realize that, but we push until somebody guards us, and then we reverse the ball and run our offense.”
Perhaps as integral to the team’s success as anything gleaned from a playbook are what the players — and virtually every student in the school — draw from textbooks and the variety of other activities offered by the school that numbers 65 students in grades 9-12.
“Most everybody on the basketball team had a math meet last night, so we had to practice a little later,” said Connor Burtt, a junior guard. “We’re all very into school, academics and after-school programs like band or sports. Everything our school puts out there, we want to be involved with it.”
This year’s 11 boys varsity players are all honor roll students. As a team, they carry a 93 cumulative grade-point average, according to Lynda Foren-Turner, the school’s director of guidance. Six players are National Honor Society members, and three others are candidates for induction this year. The other two players are freshmen and not yet eligible for NHS.
Such academic achievement is not limited to the 41 boys and girls playing basketball this winter.
All 16 members of last year’s graduating class were accepted into college, and all received scholarships from the Hayden Family Trust, a fund established in 2007 as the result of a $1 million gift from an anonymous donor who grew up in Easton.
Foren-Turner said it’s typical for 100 percent of the senior class to go college, with the exceptions being graduates who join the armed services.
“The small-town atmosphere really is big here,” she added. “We’ve got a dedicated staff and a very supportive community, and there’s no way students can slip through the cracks because we’re a small school, and we know where they’re at academically.”
That community support is even more important given that Easton ranks as the lowest-receiving school department in Maine for state aid, said Roger Shaw, who has served as Easton’s superintendent of schools for the last two years in addition to similar duties he’s had for the last two decades at neighboring SAD 42 in Mars Hill.
“The quality of the academic department at Easton High School has been legendary for years,” said Shaw. “They have small classes, they’re a single-community school district, and they have a tremendous amount of community pride.
“The other thing that’s interesting about that school is that there really are no cliques there. Let me put it this way, there’s one clique, and every kid’s a part of it,” he said.
Easton’s status as a low-receiving school stems from its property valuation and low student enrollment, with the school system instead largely supported by a strong industrial tax base founded in its agricultural tradition and two large employers, potato processor McCain Foods USA and J.M. Huber Corp., a wood products operation.
“The fact we’ve got two industries right here in town really helps,” said Carter. “Those two industries make it so we can stay small like we are and have good schools. As far back as I can remember, Easton always had a good academic reputation, but I admit I’m awful biased.”
Carter also is admittedly biased about this year’s boys basketball team, which hosts No. 15 Schenck of East Millinocket in a preliminary-round tournament game Wednesday for the right to advance to the regional quarterfinals at the Cross Insurance Center in Bangor.
“I think this team is real good,” he said. They really go after the ball, and they’ve got a pretty good shooting record. They’ve got an awfully good, balanced squad.”
There’s also a level of team chemistry that’s been developed since the players began participating in the local recreation department’s “Little Bears” peewee program.
“They all stay together and play together and come up through together, and success breeds success,” said Shaw. “Everything’s cyclical, but they’re a pretty good basketball team right now. They’ve got good size, they’ve got good quickness, good ballhandling, they’re good defensively, and in my opinion, they’ve got probably the best young coach in the state of Maine.”
As for that young coach — who will complete classes at the University of Maine at Presque Isle this spring and then student-teach in the fall before pursuing his own career in education — Kingsbury is thankful to those who took a chance and hired a 19-year-old barely out of high school three seasons ago. He is equally grateful for the student-athletes he hopes to lead to championship contention in the coming week.
“It’s a very special community over here, and I’ve been blessed with the kids I’ve had to coach,” he said. “I can’t say that enough because that’s most of why I’ve been successful as a coach. The community and the kids here have been great. It’s just the way they’re raised and the way they conduct themselves, and it’s special.”